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Has the Treasury binned weekly collections?

by Paul Goodman

Caroline Spelman was questioned in the Commons yesterday about the waste review.  One of the main matters raised was weekly bin collections, and perhaps the best place to start is with two quotes.

The first is from my colleague Harry Phibbs yesterday, citing the Government's review of waste policy as follows:

"The Government will be working with local councils to increase the frequency and quality of rubbish collections and make it easier to recycle, and to tackle measures which encourage councils  specifically to cut the scope of collections"

The second is from an article by Eric Pickles, also published yesterday.

"For the first time, in a major change of government policy, Whitehall will start supporting – rather than opposing – frequent rubbish collections. We will be working with local councils to increase the frequency and quality of rubbish collections and make it easier to recycle. The Government understands that the public have a reasonable expectation that household waste collections services should be weekly, particularly for smelly waste which results in vermin, flies and odours."

The phrase "increase the frequency and quality of rubbish collections" suggests that Pickles and Spelman are literally reading from the same page on weekly bin collections - while DEFRA officials work ceaselessly to rewrite the policy, against the wishes of their Secretary of State.  This is the view that Harry took, and there is no hard evidence to the contrary.

However, some questions arise about yesterday's events.
  • Paul Waugh of PoliticsHome wrote yesterday that "Ministers pulled out of appearing on the Today programme" in relation to the review.  He described the review announcement as a "glaring U-turn" on weekly collections, adding that "it looks like [Spelman's] won a battle for once, with the help of tight budgets and ‘localism’."  Waugh is a good operator, and his view - which accords with that of other members of the lobby - must be taken seriously.
  • The Environment Secretary didn't come to the floor of the House voluntarily.  She was required by the Speaker to answer an urgent question on the waste review from Labour, having issued a written statement earlier in the day.  That doesn't necessarily mean that there's tension over the policy - but the move could be read as suggesting so, especially in the light of the claims about "Today".
  • "Increase the frequency and quality of rubbish collections" is not quite the same thing as, say, "support a return to weekly collections".  That Spelman didn't use the latter form of words in her response to the urgent question is perhaps not suprising, but it should be noted that she didn't use the former either: she said nothing in it about increasing the "frequency and quality" of collections.
  • The Environment Secretary was asked by Jamie Reed (Copeland), the Labour frontbencher who tabled the urgent question, about weekly collections, and didn't address the matter.  However, when pressed about the matter by Joan Ruddock (Labour, Deptford), she said that -

"The Government will be working with local councils to increase the frequency and quality of rubbish collections and make it easier to recycle, to tackle measures that encourage councils specifically to cut the scope of collections and to support them where they wish to provide a weekly collection for smelly waste"

- so the "frequency and quality" phrase was eventually deployed.  When John Redwood (Wokingham) raised the subject again, she produced a figure:

...we believe that it is important to support local authorities that want to provide a weekly collection of the smelly part of the waste, and DEFRA will make available £10 million to assist them in that."

And when Chris Leslie (Nottingham East) again claimed a U-turn, she said -

"I remind the hon. Gentleman that we are a coalition Government, a Government of two parties, and he might like to read the coalition agreement commitment..."

As I say, there's no hard evidence that Pickles and Spelman disagree about weekly collections, and some that they agree about weekly collections of "smelly waste".  However, a key factor is clearly money.  Neither Secretary of State has of course ever supported forcing local councils to return to general weekly collections: both have backed incentives.

And it's here that there seems to be a problem.  The Daily Mail suggested yesterday that the bill for such incentives would be up to £100 million were weekly collections to return.  Spelman quoted a figure of £10 million.  It appears that the Treasury simply hasn't got the money required, or isn't willing to offer it - leaving Pickles, who's been especially forthright on weekly collections, politically exposed.

Whatever her view, the Environment Secretary's Department certainly holds to the view that fortnightly collections mean more recycling - all the better to meet those EU targets.


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